College Instructors Share Their Worst Stories of Students Screwing Up
From obvious plagiarism to whiny undergrads to dudes who stand in the middle of the classroom yo-yoing while high.
Illustration by Vinnie Neuberg
College is traditionally the place where young minds are molded, but before the molding takes place, Jesus, those young minds can be in rough shape. Like many half-domesticated animals, 18-year-olds tend to be skittish, guided by momentary impulses, and utterly unable to plan more than half an hour ahead—despite this, we toss them in dorms where they're expected to interact with the opposite sex and a variety of drugs. "Have fun, honey! Give me a call if you need help remembering how to do your laundry!" their parents call out before returning to their now blissfully teen-free homes.
Needless to say, when sent to classes where they are confronted with a bunch of big books and ideas they are often disoriented. "Disoriented" as in sometimes stoned, sometimes unprepared, sometimes plain dumb, and sometimes literally unsure where they're supposed to be. When you're experiencing this disorientation yourself as an undergrad you assume that it's going on mostly in your head, unseen by the grown-ups in charge of grading and governing you.
But no, the professors who teach you—or at least attempt to teach you—notice all of your harmless and not-so-harmless foibles, and they are laughing at you more or less all the time. Here are some of their stories, which they have shared anonymously:
–"I had a student choose to write a research paper on the topic of ethics. It became clear right away that the student had plagiarized his work, with a Google search revealing that it was taken from the 'Ethics' entry of the Catholic Encyclopedia. I don't think he appreciated the irony."
"I had a student bring her baby to class. A few minutes in, the baby got fidgety, so the student put the baby on the floor."
–"When I walked into class once, a student was standing in the middle of the room with a yo-yo, intensely yo-yoing. He was obviously high, and he needed a lot of convincing that he had to put the yo-yo away. After class I told him that his habits were his business but that the yo-yo shouldn't come to class again. It didn't. He turned out to be a good student."
–"I had a student in a BFA program once turn in a report on an artist from whom she drew 'artistic influence,' and I knew in less than two sentences that shit was entirely plagiarized. The language in it was preposterously flowery and sounded suspiciously like a terribly shitty artist statement written by the actual artist (who, for the record, was awful and did mostly plant-inspired wallpaper patterns).
I googled one sentence from her paper in quotation marks and it pulled up the artist's own bio on her website. The student had even forgotten to change every first-person statement by the artist to third-person for her paper.
Naturally, I called her out on it and she was scared shitless. I then lied and told her I'd sent the plagiarized paper to her department chair and was waiting on his decision about whether to contact her parents and whether to expel her, and let that hang over her head for the rest of the semester. She generally quit fucking off after that. LOL."
–"My favorite malapropism of all time, from an essay on whether prostitution should be legal: 'caramelized prostitution.'"
–"I had a student bring her baby to class. A few minutes in, the baby got fidgety, so the student put the baby on the floor to crawl around under all the other students' desks. It was hard for everyone to concentrate, but one student managed to fall asleep in class anyway. Then the sleeping student's cell phone rang, which startled the crawling baby, and, in a daze, the student answered it right there in class: 'Hello?' That's when I dismissed everyone early."
–"During a class in which we read a lot of nonfiction, we read an essay by the economist Robert Reich. This was circa 2010, just before the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off, and before student debt hit $1 trillion. I mentioned something about a law regarding student loans that George W. Bush had signed, and made an offhand crack about Bush. Most of the students laughed, but a few days later, my superior called me into her office to have a little chat. I told her what I'd said, she agreed with me, and of course said I had every right to my own opinions. However, she told me to be more careful about what opinions I expressed in class. (This was in Tennessee, after all.) I never knew which student it was, but by the end of the week, a student had dropped the course."
–"One summer I taught a Tuesday/Thursday English course, and had a student who missed about ten classes. She showed up one day, out of the blue, wanting to know if she could make up the essays she missed. I informed her that she would be failing due to her excessive absences, and she threw a tantrum, complete with tears and wailing. She immediately went to the dean and wanted to file a complaint, stating that she had been there, I just hadn't noticed her. It was a class of 20; it wasn't hard to notice her non-presence. I was forced to let her back into class, and she attended every single one after that, piping up with comments throughout discussions to make sure I knew she was present. She even signed up to take a fiction class with me the next term."